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Inside New York City’s task force on bias

Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

Illustrations by Shonagh Rae

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

The call came in to the New York Police Department’s Hate Crime Task Force (HCTF) before dawn as a possible bias crime, as all their calls do. According to police officers at the 83rd Precinct who had responded at the scene, an Ecuadorian man had been beaten so brutally that he was unresponsive and on life support at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. Police lingo is terse and yet at the same time, unintentionally, gently euphemistic: “An assault, likely.” Meaning, likely to die.

Sergeant Patrick Rodrigo and Detective Sydney Valerio, who had arrived early for their eight-to-four shift, headed out to Bushwick. On their way, they called Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, who has led the task force for sixteen years. Listening to the description of his injuries, Osgood knew José Sucuzhañay wasn’t going to survive; this would be a homicide investigation. Only a month earlier, another Ecuadorian had been killed by a gang of white teenagers on Long Island who regularly beat up Hispanic men for sport, calling it “beaner hopping,” and in New York’s Hispanic community that trauma was still raw. For Osgood, everything pointed to a critical, politically sensitive case that desperately needed to be solved. He told Rodrigo to rally the entire task force.

Formed in 1981 as the Bias Incident Investigation Unit, nineteen years before New York State had even passed a hate crime law, the HCTF is the second-oldest such unit in the country, after Boston’s. The job of the twenty-­eight-member task force is twofold: investigate and solve the underlying crime—whether it’s vandalism, assault, arson, or murder—and determine whether or not it qualifies as a hate crime under Article 485 of the state penal code. That is, was the crime motivated wholly or substantially by the victim’s identity?

Hate crimes are hard to investigate. According to the Justice Department, violent hate crimes that are reported to the police are actually three times less likely to result in an arrest than other violent crimes. For starters, the perpetrator and the victim in hate-crime homicides are almost always strangers, whereas victims of homicide in which bias doesn’t play a role know their killers at least 75 percent of the time. So there’s often no connection between the parties for the police to follow. Secondly, hate crimes are high-profile incidents, covered intensely by the media and tracked closely by the public, which means the task force works in the spotlight and under pressure. Lastly, they are one of several types of criminal investigation in which motive must be established. It is not enough to prove that Person A beat Person B over the head with a baseball bat; the task force must also prove that Person A committed this criminal act because of Person B’s identity.

Last year, I asked Osgood to walk me through a number of investigations. Hate crimes were on the rise, making headlines across the country, and the HCTF had a remarkable record of solving them. The task force has solved every hate crime homicide and gang assault reported in New York City over the past sixteen years. To put this in context, the national solve rate for homicides is 62 percent. In many municipalities the rate is less than 50 percent, and in predominantly minority neighborhoods it can plunge into the single digits. I wanted to understand what made the HCTF so successful. The task force would only discuss closed cases with me, but, over the course of several months, they gave me detailed insight into fourteen investigations. The investigation of the murder of José Sucuzhañay in the winter of 2008 was one of the longest and most grueling in the unit’s history.

Hate crime statutes, which are fundamentally identity-­­protection laws, recognize that being selected as a victim because of who you are is more deeply traumatizing than being targeted for economic gain or personal revenge—more frighteningly irrational and inescapable. You can leave your valuables at home, but not signifiers of your identity. “When you have a crime that’s identity-motivated, identity-selected, there’s a deeper emotion because there’s a deeper trespass,” Osgood told me. “The increased trauma that occurs is clear—you look in the victim’s eyes, and you can see it.” The New York State hate crime statute notes that these crimes cast ripples of fear and vulnerability through entire communities. These are crimes that wound and frighten whole populations, enrage the public, and, the statute says, “tear at the very fabric of a free society.”

What were essentially the first hate crime laws in the United States were enacted in 1870 and 1871, after the Civil War. Known as the Enforcement Acts, they were a federal response to a wave of terror and violence unleashed by whites in the South in order to retain racial supremacy. Members of the Ku Klux Klan set fire to black schools and churches; murdered black legislators and white Republican leaders; organized armed patrols of polling places; and beat, whipped, raped, and killed thousands of black men and women. Local officials were either complicit or powerless to stop the violence. Many were Klansmen themselves. The third Enforcement Act, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, allowed the president to declare martial law and send in federal troops to protect black citizens and their rights—to vote, to serve on juries, and to hold political office. The most successful application of this act happened in South Carolina, when nine extremely violent counties were put under martial law and hundreds of Klansmen were arrested and then tried in front of predominantly black juries.

As history shows, these laws exist not to punish thought crimes, as critics allege, but to address deep and real prejudices when they are criminally acted upon. In the 1980s, journalists and policy advocates coined the term “hate crime,” but that terminology, while more striking than “bias” or “identity-motivated” crime, has led to confusion. It’s not the emotion of hatred that the law targets—it’s the act of victim selection. The detectives at HCTF say that most offenders will insist that they’re not racist or homophobic, citing as evidence the black kids they grew up with or their brother-in-law who’s gay, but the detectives’ reply is simply, “We’re not saying you are.” They just need to know if in this specific time and place you selected your victim because of his or her identity.

Currently, forty-five states have hate crime statutes, some more comprehensive than others. For instance, bias on the basis of race, religion, and ethnicity is covered by all forty-five, but only sixteen states and the District of Columbia recognize bias based on gender identity, leaving transgender people, one of the most vulnerable groups, without that protection.

Since 2015, when Donald Trump began to scapegoat a number of min­ority groups, in what became a brawling, bruising, bottom-seeking presidential campaign, hate crimes have been on the rise, peaking most sharply in the weeks after Trump’s election. In 2016, as the campaign raged, hate crimes went up 20 percent in Chicago, 50 percent in Philadelphia, and an astonishing 62 percent in Washington, D.C. The latest data, from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, shows that the trend is continuing. Hate crimes are up 13 percent across America’s ten largest cities: New York City and Chicago saw decreases, but Phoenix experienced a 33 percent increase; Houston, 38 percent; and San Jose, 132 percent.

Still, hate crime data barely paints the picture. Thousands of police departments fail to report hate crimes to the FBI. Other hate crimes disappear from the record because they’re misclassified—a beating is investigated as a simple assault, for instance, even though the perpetrator used racial or ethnic slurs during the attack. Even the best-intentioned law enforcement agency may not have the manpower, skills, or experience to investigate and properly determine if a hate crime has occurred. A recent report by ­ProPublica found that only twelve states have laws requiring that their police academies train officers in hate crime investigations. According to the report, “Officers at several police departments told ­­ProPublica they thought it was up to prosecutors to decide if an incident was a hate crime.” The biggest problem, though, may be the numbers of hate crimes that go unreported, since the groups most at risk of being targeted also tend to be suspicious of authorities. In 2016, local police departments reported 6,121 hate crimes to the federal government, but estimates from the National Crime Victimization Survey—widely considered to be a more accurate measurement—put the number at almost 250,000.

Hate crime penalties vary from state to state, and the laws are often quite complex. When a person is convicted of a hate crime in New York State, the underlying crime is bumped up one category. This means that a Class D violent felony, which carries a sentence of two to seven years, becomes a Class C violent felony, increasing the possible sentence to between three-and-a-half and fifteen years. But research has shown that longer sentences do little to deter crime. As the National Institute of Justice reported in 2016, “The chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.” So it would seem that highly skilled and experienced investigators are far more crucial to fighting hate crimes than piling on the years.

The value of hate crime legislation lies elsewhere. When the state recognizes these assaults against identity, marking them as particularly morally offensive and psychologically damaging, police and prosecutors are pushed to take these crimes seriously. A large number of hate crimes are low-level offenses—scrawling swastikas on street signs, vandalizing storefronts in Muslim neighborhoods—crimes that, without hate crime legislation, would be unlikely to receive significant attention from the authorities. With such laws in place, victims feel more comfortable coming forward, and police are more likely to work with at-risk communities. Hate crimes have been called “message crimes”—poison-pen letters to the most vulnerable among us. Hate crime laws send a message back.

Deputy Chief Osgood is an amiable, six-foot-four former Marine who keeps copies of the Harvard Business Review in his office and counts Galileo and Chesty Puller among his heroes. He has an analytical mind and a restless, buoyant energy. Because Osgood applies advanced management theories to daily police operations, the NYPD brass often refer to him as an “academic,” with a tinge of amused tolerance. Osgood dismisses the term. “Academic is you want to discuss the difference between Othello and maybe Macbeth,” he says one afternoon at his office, his fingers rapidly drumming the table. “I’m not academic—these principles work.” When detectives first join Osgood’s task force, they’re handed a thick stack of reading material on everything from the latest science on conducting interviews and detecting deception to hate crime statutes and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Three years into his post at the HCTF, Osgood began to formulate a predictive model for hate crime offenders. “Offender after offender, I started seeing the same set of characteristics,” he says. “It’s not what you do on Criminal Minds. This is not the criminal profile on the behavioral analysis unit. That has severe limitations to it. This is a highly probabilistic model of people who commit hate crime offenses. When we have no clues, when we have no evidence, this is where we start from.”

According to Osgood’s model, a hate crime offender is likely to be white and male, between the ages of eighteen to twenty-four and emotionally juvenile. He’s currently unemployed, and his work history, if he has any, is spotty. He comes from a single-parent, maternal household that’s upper-lower or lower-middle class. He’s a stranger to his victim, but he lives nearby. The crime scene is chaotic, because the crime wasn’t planned.

Premeditated attacks by people with extremist beliefs and connections to organized hate groups, otherwise known as “mission offenders,” are almost nonexistent in urban areas, and rare even in rural ones. Most of the hate crimes that occur in New York City are committed by reactive offenders, thrill seekers, people with mental illness, or some combination of the three. The reactive offender bumps into someone not like him or her and escalates the encounter into violence. The thrill seeker is often a juvenile (or an emotionally immature adult) who is looking for excitement: there doesn’t need to be a precipitating event. A gang of young men who hunt for Latino men to beat up fits this profile, as does a solitary vandal who spray-paints a swastika on a stop sign, or hangs a noose from a lamppost.

“You may have prejudicial thinking in your head but to go from prejudicial thoughts to prejudicial-based criminality is a quantum leap,” Osgood says. The typical hate crime offender has a criminal history, according to Osgood, mostly low-level crimes and misdemeanors. He doesn’t have full impulse control and can’t see the consequences of his actions, which has already led him into trouble. So the local cops will likely already know of the offender, and he’ll be a part of a loose network of other neighborhood troublemakers. After the HCTF identifies this network, with the help of the local precinct cops, they begin approaching the individuals one by one to see what they know. It’s a strategy that they’ve used hundreds of times to break a case where there is little to no evidence.

The HCTF is a traveling squad, covering all five boroughs. They often work out of whatever precinct caught the crime. It can be tough for precinct detectives to be invaded by the task force—“We roll in twenty deep,” one HCTF cop says—and, for detectives who normally work an investigation in pairs, it is eye-opening to see an entire squad working a case, inspectors, lieutenants, captains, and chief included.

HCTF is probably the most supervised unit in NYPD. Currently twenty-three detectives are overseen by two sergeants, two captains, a lieutenant, an inspector, and a chief. But Osgood has mandated a “flat command structure” in complete opposition to NYPD culture, with its top-down, military-style chain of command. At HCTF, supervisors are on-scene with their detectives, working the same long hours, and jobs are assigned by talent, not by rank. Information is shared in real time. When Osgood wants to know what a witness told a detective, for instance, he just asks him. “I’m not gonna ask his inspector to ask his lieutenant to ask his sergeant to ask him,” the chief says.

Osgood and the other HCTF supervisors spend a lot of time on community outreach in order to build credibility with the groups that represent minority populations in New York. The aim is to open up a line of communication so that hate crimes are reported to them and reliable information can be dispersed back into the community. “He’s really fearless when it comes to speaking to the community,” says Queens assistant district attorney Mariela Herring, chief of the Gang Violence and Hate Crimes Bureau. “Very forthright. I think he shares more information than most members of law enforcement would share.”

The importance of this became clear on a sharply cold night last year, when someone passing by Washington Cemetery, in the Mapleton section of Brooklyn, spotted a number of upended headstones and filed a report. Only days earlier, Jewish burial grounds in Philadelphia and St. Louis had been desecrated—hundreds of tombstones toppled or defaced—and New York’s Jewish community was on edge.

Washington Cemetery, a vast and crowded congregation of stone, is best viewed from the overhead F train. It was opened in 1850 and consecrated as a Jewish burial ground seven years later. Children under ten years old were buried for two dollars; infants, for one. The Marx brothers’ grandmother is interred there along with the playwright Jerry Sterner, whose headstone reads: “Finally, a plot.”

When the HCTF detectives arrived on the scene the next morning, several politicians were holding a press conference at the cemetery gates, denouncing this most recent act of anti-Semitism. But detectives found no footprints or scuff marks at the scene, no graffiti or beer cans or candy wrappers, none of the usual signs of graveyard vandalism. They saw moss creeping across the fallen stones, swirling ivy, a scattering of grass clippings from the summer before. The cemetery manager explained that the stones, each of which weighed hundreds of pounds, would sometimes tumble over as the ground shifts and sinks over time. He said that the grounds were too crowded with the dead to bring in the heavy equipment needed to raise them again.

Evan Bernstein, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, says that he’s glad to have the HCTF, given the current volatile atmosphere as well as the abundance of mis­information on social media. “We trust them,” he told me. Bernstein waited until he spoke with the task force before tweeting that the task force’s investigation suggested that no crime had been committed.

On the chill, gray morning that José Sucuzhañay was attacked, Osgood drove to the crime scene in Bushwick. He looked at the layout of the streets: the hodgepodge of small houses with their aluminum awnings and cement front yards, swept clean; the soldierly lines of trash and recycling bins; and the stubble of winter trees. He noted the feel of the neighborhood, the volume of traffic, and the numbers of the apartment buildings and houses facing the crime scene. His officers would have to canvass them for potential witnesses. Then he drove over to the local 83rd Precinct.

Every member of the task force had crowded into the precinct detectives’ squad room. They all knew that they were at the start of one of those cases that would swallow them whole. The media would be out in force soon. There would be protests in the streets of Bushwick, vigils outside the hospital. The clock would be ticking and the pressure building to bring justice to José’s grieving family. “The way I describe it,” Osgood said, “is you basically get on a tidal wave and the tidal wave just pushes you.” The detectives had brought clean shirts and shaving kits to work with them. Osgood had already scouted out a local diner where they would meet for food and strategy sessions.

By nine o’clock, the HCTF had begun canvassing the neighborhood, looking for witnesses. They hit every door in the houses and apartment buildings within a four- or five-block radius of the crime scene. “If you knocked in the morning and no one answered, then you go back at six o’clock,” Detective Eric Sanchez told me. “If no one is still there, you go back at nine o’clock. Then you go back on the weekend.” Osgood calls this “investigative-process discipline,” and maintaining it through fruitless searches and dead ends is a test of character for the detectives and a managerial challenge for their supervisors.

The task force didn’t find any eyewitnesses that day. They spoke to a couple of “ear witnesses,” who had heard shouting, and a few post-event witnesses, who described seeing a red SUV leaving the scene and turning left on Bushwick Avenue, heading toward Manhattan.

Each piece of information that came in opened up a new investigative pathway. The detectives began searching the length of Bushwick Avenue on foot looking for a bat, in case the suspects threw it as they fled. They checked yards, garbage cans, stairwells, and underneath cars. They summoned the NYPD’s Emergency Services to open the sewer grates.

The detectives also initiated a search for the red SUV, combing the streets radiating out from the crime scene, block by block. Normally, they would have netted twenty or thirty license plates to run, but they were coming up empty-handed.

Their first break came from a livery cab driver who had been stopped at the red light behind the SUV that night. Once the frightened driver was coaxed into meeting with the detectives, he described seeing José knocked to the ground, Romel chased down the street, and a tall black man in work boots grabbing a bat from the back of the vehicle. Terrified, the livery cab driver raced off. But not before noting the license plate.

The detectives ran the plate numbers he gave them, but they didn’t match a red SUV, so members of the 83rd squad who had been temporarily assigned to HCTF’s investigation started playing with combinations of the digits until they hit on a red Mercury ­Mountaineer. The vehicle was traced to a man named Keith Phoenix, who lived in the Bronx.

The team gathered in the precinct’s kitchen. “Okay, let’s say our offender is Keith Phoenix,” Osgood said. “He comes to Bushwick, he savagely beats José, and then he has to get home. What’s the fastest way to get back to the Bronx if you just killed somebody?” They guessed he would zip straight down Bushwick Avenue to the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway and take the Triborough Bridge into the Bronx. The Triborough: a toll bridge.

Sure enough, when the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority’s security division checked the video on their toll-lane cameras, the red Mountaineer was seen pulling up to a toll booth about twenty minutes after the attack. The driver, who fit the description of Keith Phoenix, could be seen laughing as he paid the toll. Two other people, visible but indistinct, sat in the vehicle.

Osgood now had probable cause to arrest Keith Phoenix, but he wasn’t ready to act. “He’s arrestable, but he’s not prosecutable, so we’ve got to push everybody back,” Osgood says, recalling that time. “I’ve got to get him convicted.” The HCTF is slow to arrest. The emphasis is on building a prosecutable case. As Sergeant Patrick Rodrigo puts it, “A lot of times in the NYPD, we make arrests—that’s what we do. What makes the task force unique is the fact that it’s never about going to put cuffs on people right away. Your job is always to be a fact finder. We work just as hard to try to find out innocence as we do guilt.”

An essential strategy used by the HCTF is the so-called non-custodial approach of a suspect. An arrest shuts down the case, because the Miranda right to counsel kicks in. In the country as a whole, people waive their Miranda rights surprisingly often—by some estimates up to 80 percent of the time—but in New York State, Miranda is enhanced: suspects can’t waive their right to an attorney without counsel being present. This creates a real challenge for police investigators. “So you have to make a non-custodial approach on him,” Osgood explains. “Which takes skill. Only skilled detectives can do that.”

In order to get their subjects to open up voluntarily, task force detectives employ something called the “Boyd cycle,” or the “OODA loop,” developed in the 1960s by the military strategist and Air Force colonel John Boyd. The concept may sound simple, but it revolutionized military training and then made its way into the worlds of business, law, and sports. Boyd broke down the decision-making response into four parts: observation, orientation, decision, and action (OODA), and theorized that in battle whoever moved through this cycle faster would gain the upper hand. By the time your opponent reacts, the situation has changed. You need to disrupt your opponent’s cycle. If you can obscure your intentions, your opponent can’t observe them clearly and can’t orient to you and the threat you pose. He’s unable to make the right decision because he can’t follow your line of thinking. You work to become invisible and unpredictable.

Translated into police work, this might mean not letting the suspect know he’s on your radar, keeping him in the dark. The task force avoids approaching a suspect at home, for instance, because if you knock on his front door, there’s likely to be someone else there—a girlfriend, a mother—with the presence of mind to insist on calling a lawyer. Putting the Boyd cycle to use means approaching the subject sideways and suddenly, catching him off balance and unable to react quickly. Once you have him at a disadvantage, you must then connect “soul to soul,” as Osgood puts it.

Such tactics were critical in the case of four Staten Island men who went on a violent spree the night Barack Obama was first elected president, in 2008. That night, the four men drove into a primarily African-American neighborhood, where they beat one black teenager with a metal pipe and ran over a thirty-eight-year-old white man whom they thought was black because he was wearing a hoodie.

Within several days of the attack, the HCTF had zeroed in on four suspects. Three were white and one, Hispanic—eighteen-year-old Michael Contreras, who was nicknamed Dominican Mike. Sergeant Patrick Rodrigo surmised that Contreras, the odd man out, would be the weak link in the chain. So they began to surveil Contreras twenty-four hours a day, looking for that golden opportunity: Contreras alone. Contreras approachable. They were there when Contreras’s mother dropped him off at a bank on Hyland Boulevard. As Contreras entered the building to use the ATM, Osgood sent in Rodrigo.

Rodrigo knew that there was no eyewitness testimony to fall back on. The victims could not identify their attackers—the teenager had been huddled in a ball trying to protect himself from the blows; the white victim was still in a coma. The task force needed Contreras to talk. Striding toward the bank that morning, Rodrigo thought the running traffic, the sharp blue sky, the juddery mix of pedestrians, even the autumn air seemed to go still and then drop into silence. As Contreras stepped out of the bank, Rodrigo stepped to him. “Hey, Mike,” he said. “I’m gonna give you one opportunity to save your life.”

It was a statement meant to jolt—a statement with no ready reply. Sitting in his black Jeep Cherokee a block away, Osgood watched as the two sat down on the curb. “I started talking to him, and he put his head down,” Rodrigo remembered. “At that point, Mike’s cycle was all twisted up.”

They took Contreras back to the local precinct, where he told them what happened on election night. Then they took him home. The HCTF began making non-custodial approaches on the other three men. It wasn’t until January 6, when they had gathered sufficient evidence, that all four suspects were picked up and charged, in federal court, with conspiracy to interfere with voting rights in their efforts to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate” black people on election night.

Not everyone approves of the task force’s use of non-custodial interviews. Jack ­McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, who has been studying and writing about hate crimes since the 1980s, says, “The New York City hate crime unit is one of the best in the nation. They have been a model for other units all across the country, but I’m concerned about this technique. The biggest thing they have is the belief of the community that they’re gonna uphold everybody’s constitutional rights, and here, they’re not abridging them but they’re sliding around, taking a shortcut.” But the task force considers non-custodial interviews essential to their approach—­one more step in a fact-finding process that’s as likely to clear the innocent as snag the guilty.

By week five or six of the Sucuzhañay investigation, Osgood and his detectives thought they knew who was with Phoenix in the car that night: a younger cousin was in the back seat and Hakim Scott, a friend, rode shotgun. An examination of their cell phone activity, obtained after subpoenaing the service provider, showed that on the night of the murder, they were calling each other until about eleven o’clock. The calls stopped at about the same time that cell towers showed all three phones leaving the Bronx, traveling south over the Triborough Bridge and into Brooklyn. At 3:30 am the phones moved north, back to the Bronx. At around five, the three began calling each other again.

The evidence was building, but the HCTF was still searching for an eyewitness—someone to definitively put Keith Phoenix on the scene. The livery cab driver had been so terrified it was hard to know if he could accurately identify the suspects. The task force’s attention turned back to the six 9-1-1 callers who had reported the crime that night. The detectives had spoken to five of them, but one person had not returned any of their calls. They submitted a subpoena to get the subscriber information for that phone number. In the seventh week of the investigation, the district attorney’s office contacted Osgood with the caller’s name and address: it was a woman who lived in the ground-floor apartment directly facing the crime scene.

Putting her behavior together with the location—she had a good vantage point, she called 9-1-1, then she disappeared—Osgood thought the possibility that she had witnessed the murder was strong. He had to send the right people to talk to her. He chose to send Sergeant Chris Miro and Eric Sanchez, both of whom had trained with the NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT). They were affable, sincere, and gifted at getting people to open up.

At first, nothing felt as solid as that apartment door. The woman refused to open it. She knew nothing, she said; she wanted them to go away. Sanchez and Miro kept up a constant stream of chatter—appealing, calming, joking. “On an HNT job, someone’s gonna jump? Just keep talking,” Miro says. “About anything, it doesn’t matter.” As time passed, Sanchez saw hope in that closed door: the woman could’ve opened it and simply said, Sorry, detectives, I didn’t see anything. But she kept it locked against them and kept standing there—right there, on the other side.

“Honestly, I think you did see something,” Eric told her. “And deep inside you want to help us, you want to help the victim.” Twenty minutes had passed. The door cracked—a five-inch wedge of light and a sliver of her face—and they showed their badges. Once she let them in, the detectives spoke of other things. Her living room was painted a bright lime green. “Wow!” Eric exclaimed. “How long did it take you to paint this room? How many layers is this?” Another twenty minutes went by, maybe longer. Time was warped by the tension between them, but then the story came spilling out.

The woman and her husband were lying in bed when she heard glass breaking. She went to the window, and, peeking through the blinds, saw a tall black man go into the back of his car, grab a silver-colored bat, and begin to club José. She then saw him leave, return, straddle José, and raising the bat high overhead, bring it down. The woman was an EMS technician, and she told Sanchez and Miro that she knew the exact blow that finished José. She heard his skull crack and then she watched him flatten—collapse in some final way.

“This is it, the major break we’ve been looking for,” Osgood said when Sanchez reported back. A few days later, the woman would positively identify Keith Phoenix in a photo array. With that, they picked up Phoenix’s eighteen-year-old cousin. Sanchez and Detective Tony Caban thought the kid was trying to act about a hundred times tougher than he really was. The kid was afraid—of his cousin, of the cops, of his mother most of all. “I understand a situation can change in a split second, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Sanchez told him. “You’re thinking, Man, I do not want to be here right now, but you’re just frozen.” When the teenager’s eyes began to fill with tears, Sanchez knew he was going to talk.

The cousin told the detectives that he and the others drove to Brooklyn to go to a party that night. He was standing only feet away as Phoenix clubbed José. He said Phoenix was cursing and carrying on about “faggots.” The HCTF now had enough to book Phoenix and Scott on an antigay hate crime, enough to go well beyond a reasonable doubt.

In February, Hakim Scott and Keith Phoenix were arrested. While being interviewed by Brooklyn Homi­cide North detectives, Phoenix said, “So I killed someone—that makes me a bad guy?” Both men were charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter, and assault as a hate crime.

The investigation had lasted eighty-­two days.

For most of his career, Osgood has had strong support from NYPD brass. As the commander of HCTF, his requests for extra resources were legendary. Sometimes he requisitioned as many as a hundred detectives to work alongside the task force. An “Osgood mobilization,” as his detectives affectionately termed this flood of manpower, was a sign of how much trust his bosses had in his leadership and how important they considered the task force to be. The HCTF has long had the staunch and vocal support of many politicians and leaders of the Jewish, black, and LGBT communities. But hate crimes not only roil the city, they bring the media out in droves. They are regime changers, with the indirect power to depose and elect mayors. The white-on-black killings of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach and Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst ended Ed Koch’s reign and brought in David Dinkins, the city’s first and only black mayor. The killing of Yankel Rosenbaum by a group of young black men in Crown Heights in turn brought down Dinkins, and installed Rudy Giuliani.

Osgood’s track record was impressive enough that in 2010, then Police Commissioner Ray Kelly put him in charge of fixing the troubled Special Victims Division (SVD). He was told to bring the HCTF with him.

But all of that changed last spring. In March, after a yearlong probe by the independent Department of Investigation (DOI), the department released a scathing report on the SVD, finding the division to be woefully understaffed, inadequately trained, and using facilities that were cramped, unsanitary, and completely inappropriate for traumatized victims. In some precincts, for instance, victims were interviewed “in view of holding cells and within earshot of other detectives.” Attached to that report were memos from Osgood, sent over the years, asking his bosses for more manpower, better training, and more appropriate facilities. None of the memos had received a reply.

At a city council hearing convened after the findings were released, the brass denied almost every aspect of the report. Osgood was not given the opportunity to testify. (He sat in the audience.) Osgood, who had been forthcoming in his interviews with the DOI, was suddenly recast as a rogue cop. In an agency that believes all problems should be settled inside the family (or allowed to fester there), Osgood’s cooperation with the investigation was seen as a betrayal.

On April 3, a Daily News story on Osgood’s financial contributions to Trump’s campaign appeared under the headline, nypd sex crimes chief donated thousands to trump after video scandal on grabbing women ‘by the p—y.’ Police Commissioner James O’Neill suggested that the NYPD would be reviewing Osgood’s leadership as part of its response to the DOI report, but victims’ advocates across the city came to his defense. “I’ve never encountered another special victims investigator who can match Osgood’s expertise or his dedication to these cases,” Jane Manning, the local director of advocacy for the National Organization for Women, told the New York Times. Several of the most prominent organizations working against sexual assault in the city sent a letter to O’Neill. “As advocates who work every day with survivors of sexual assault, we’re writing to express our strong confidence in Deputy Chief Michael Osgood. He has been a devoted, compassionate, visionary, and outstanding leader in the effort to make the NYPD’s response to sexual assault the best it can be.”

Then this summer, a newly appointed chief of detectives, Dermot Shea, took the HCTF away from Osgood and placed it under the umbrella of Special Investigations. In the highly political and secretive bureaucracy of the NYPD, it’s difficult to know whether this was the typical reshuffling done by a new chief or another jab at Osgood. Some believe the task force will end up back under Osgood’s leadership because of his considerable expertise, but no matter who leads it, one HCTF detective said, “our goals are still the same.” The SVD has never had the kind of strong internal support enjoyed by the HCTF, but the current public pressure on the NYPD to fix the unit is similar to the atmosphere back in the Eighties, when black and Jewish groups advocated for a specialized unit to investigate bias crimes.

The NYPD’s press conference announcing the arrest of Scott and Phoenix was covered by all of the Hispanic media in the city. The next day, Osgood went to a car wash on Staten Island. He was as incognito as a six-foot-four police chief can be, wearing blue running pants, a black jacket, and a baseball cap. After his car went through the wash, he went to the back, where five or six Hispanic men were waiting to dry the car. As soon as the men saw him, they called out, “El jefe! El jefe!” They crowded around him, wanting to talk about the arrest. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the entire Hispanic community was tracking this. They were tracking this thing for months,” Osgood says. For him, it’s a crystal-clear example of the rippling effect of hate crimes, of group victimization, and why it’s so necessary to step in swiftly and interdict this behavior. “I’m just going through the car wash on a Saturday morning, I’ve got sweat pants on, a baseball jacket, and they recognized me. Why? Because they’re that affected by it.”

Keith Phoenix was convicted of murder as a hate crime and sentenced to thirty-seven years to life. Hakim Scott was convicted of manslaughter—the jury acquitted him of the murder and hate crime counts—and sentenced to thirty-seven years. The younger cousin wasn’t charged with any crime because he took no part in the assault. He testified at the trial.

At the close of the Sucuzhañay investigation, the detectives felt both satisfied and depleted. “Even though you try to block out the emotion, here you just spent the last eighty-two days because somebody just got beat senselessly, brutally for no reason at all,” Osgood says. “There’s a sense of sadness that, one, we have this victim brutally beaten, that you live with this event—you actually live with this poor person being dead—being killed, for the eighty-two days . . . and to some degree I think there’s also sadness that we’re gonna put two people in jail for thirty-seven years. I wish the whole thing never occurred.”

’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Tiny Little Laws,” appeared in the February 2011 issue.

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February 2011

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